Chapter 14. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT screamed at the top of her lungs. It was a soundless scream compared to the primal crashing of rocks all around them. She was expecting splitting pain, bones to break, blood to spill, her body to contort as she was crushed into a pulp by rubble. None of this came.

KT risked opening her eyes. A blue dome covered the group that formed a barrier between them and the certain death beyond. As debris hit the dome, the rocks fizzed and broke away, dissolving like sugar cubes in water. Elizabeth stood at the dome’s centre, her hands splayed and sweat drenching her face. Her body shook and her eyes were tightly closed.

The shield grew darker, sliding rapidly into a bruised purple colour. Elizabeth dropped to one knee. Her teeth were clenched and her clothes were already drenched. Her face was flushed red with effort. Then the purple light grew flushed too, turning to a deep red. As the shield turned red, it was as though it drained the colour directly from Elizabeth. Her face was now deathly pale.

Then the explosions stopped. Rubble still fell and everything continued to rumble and shake but gradually it all faded to a still calm. Only the dust moved, obscuring the view of anything more than a few feet ahead of them. The dome spluttered then blinked out of existence. It’s disappearance left a circle of clear ground amidst a sea of carnage.

“Damn it,” Niall growled. He surveyed the damage with dull eyes until they fell upon Elizabeth.

She was on the ground now, as pale as a corpse. Blood flecked her lips and her breathing was shallow. Friseal’s body was beside her, as were a few other fallen MacFeelans. And what was left of Déaþscúa.

“Lizzy, ye alright?” Niall asked as he knelt beside her.

She breathed heavily before managing to muster words. “I’m spent. It’s all gone. Gone.” She stared into the middle distance and spoke as though to herself.

Niall cursed before signalling to the few unharmed MacFeelans to carry the dead and wounded. He once again lifted up his brother’s limp frame. “We need te get back te the camp.” He started forward without another word.

KT helped Kai to his feet then they both supported each other as they limped the short distance to the camp. Jearl joined them from a hiding spot up a tree and immediately took the place of one of the Scotsmen who carried Déaþscúa. His usual cheerful, carefree demeanour was gone.

Smoke was what greeted them first as they neared the camp. Then fire. Then strung up bodies. At a shambling run the group entered the camp to find it recast in the likeness of Hell. Burned out cabins, shattered possessions and corpses were all that remained. 

KT stared in dull horror. It was like returning to the lodge all over again only worse. The only body present there had been her mother’s, and she had still clung to life. Here, women, children and the elderly and ill, lay butchered in the mud, hacked to pieces where they had fallen. Scores of goblins, lycan and other humanoid shapes were present in the litany of death where the MacFeelan’s had fought. For how few had stayed behind they must have fought like demons of war.

She wandered a short way into the camp, drawn by the horror like icy fingers pulling at her soul. A mound of goblin and hired guns marked the area in front of the main hall. Maridia lay at its peak, her jaw missing. She had fought hard to defend the door but had ultimately been overwhelmed. The door behind her had been torn from its hinges. The sobbing of men and a low wail of a woman within confirmed KT’s fears.

Howls of grief and anger tore from the warriors’ throats. They scoured the camp searching for loved ones, their cries only increasing when they were found. KT, Kai and Jearl stood at the settlement’s edge, out of the way of the distraught clansmen. Déaþscúa and Elizabeth lay by their feet.

KT couldn’t bear to watch the men roar at the heavens. She turned her attention onto Déaþscúa and was amazed at how he looked. His body had regained much of its form, the gaping wounds and shredded flesh having faded to smaller holes that were already scabbing over. She noticed that his lips were moving slightly so she leaned in, placing her ear just above his mouth. He was mumbling something. The words were unclear at first but he was beginning to speak louder.

“Ácennicge! Géoc mec! Hit earfoðe! Cwéman! Ácennicge!”

“It is Old English,” said Elizabeth as she slowly sat up, surprising KT. Her voice was weak and her eyes still looked dazed but that keen intelligence still shined through. “I don’t know much but I can tell he is calling for his mother.”

“You’re right there, miss,” Jearl told her. “He must be feverish. He’s calling out like a sick child. It’s good to see his throat’s healed enough to speak though.” The untidy man looked to Elizabeth. “And what ‘bout you?”

“There is nothing to be healed,” she answered tiredly. “Magical energies can be a cruel mistress. You can deplete your magical stores and yet push further and draw more. It takes energy from your health, your very life. I had to push far to keep up that shield. My body will recover, minus a few years, but my magic, that is lost forever.”

“I’m real sorry about that. I know how rough that must feel.”

“Are you magical too, Jearl?” KT asked.

He gave her a strange look then smiled his cocky smile. “Me? Nah, can’t light a candle without a military-grade flamethrower. I’m just good ol’ reliable Jearl.”

Kai finally tore his eyes from the suffering and came to KT’s side. He was bloody and bruised but was still the picture of wrath. 

“They killed them all. Women and children. Babies. All of them dead. Is this what she plans to do to Dad and the others? Is this supposed to help save the damn world?” he said. KT had no answer. “I just want this to be over. To go home and see Mum and Dad again.

“Your mother is safe,” Elizabeth told him soothingly. “She is in a Powerle… a regular hospital with a fever.” She had stumbled over the word ‘Powerless’, a term that now likely referred to her too.

Déaþscúa was still calling out weakly. His words changed constantly, slipping through languages like gears on a car. KT didn’t understand any of it until the words transitioned into English.

“I’m sorry. Why? Why does everyone die? I tried so hard but failed you all. Dead. So much death. Ava…”

KT frowned. “Did he say Ava?” Maybe it was a coincidence.

Elizabeth nodded sadly. “Yes. She was his accomplice. They were very close. Her death hit him very hard. He hasn’t been the same since.”

KT’s mind was working overtime. Almost scared to hear the answer she asked the question that blazed in her head.

“Ava Peterson? A dark haired woman who died almost twenty years ago here in Scotland?”

Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to frown. “Did Déaþscúa tell you? He speaks of it to nobody.”

“No. She was our cousin. She died before we were even born. It was her mother who we were here visiting. Déaþscúa never said… That’s why he always looks at me like I’m a ghost. What really happened to her?”

Kai looked shellshocked. “We were always told that it had been a car crash. That Ava and Uncle Frank had skidded off the road during a storm. It was Annis, wasn’t it? We were told that this wasn’t the first time that Déaþscúa has been here hunting her.”

Elizabeth waved them away unsteadily. “It is not my place to tell you. It is Déaþscúa’s story to tell or keep locked away.”

“But she is our family!” KT said.

“Ask Déaþscúa once he has healed,” the witch told them again flatly. “Now quieten down. We have company.”

From the flames emerged Niall. He addressed them bluntly. His face was a mask of thinly veiled wrath. “We will lay the dead te rest now. As soon as we’re finished, we march te war. I will take ye te a nearby faegate that will see ye te safety.”

They all nodded. Kai and Jearl manhandled Déaþscúa off the ground and the group followed Niall through the woods. Daylight still shone down but the sky was growing darker and the wind was bitterly cold. Another hour and it would be dark. Nobody spoke. Niall kept his eyes forward and walked with a brisk speed that the others struggled to match.

It was only a few minutes of walking until Niall stopped beside a circle of mushrooms. KT knew it as a fairy ring. It was about two metres wide and was made up with hand sized white mushrooms. Nothing else visible looked any different than the rest of the forest they had travelled. 

“Take Déaþscúa someplace safe. When he’s back on his feet, tell him that Annis has gone tee far this time. If he doesnae git his arse straight back here then we’ll take her on alone.” Niall told them quietly. His voice dropped even lower. “Some of the bairns are missing. They’ll like as nae taken them te eat. We’ve lost everything except our violent nature. That has grown. Stubbornness and rage is all we have.” He left them, tears threatening to fall from the corners of his eyes.

Elizabeth watched him go sadly before turning to the others. She was already looking better, other than a loss that lingered in her eyes. 

“Everyone into the ring,” she ordered them smoothly, ushering the group forward like a mother hen. “Faegates are easy to use if you know how, deadly if you don’t. I’ll take us as close to my house as we can get. I may not be able to use magic to heal him but I still know my herbs and potions.”

“No,” said Jearl, surprising them all with his firmness of tone. “Your house is compromised. Annis knows where you live. I don’t know much but I do know she is plannin’ somethin’ big. She won’t want any loose ends lyin’ around to trip her up. We should take him to his own house. Nobody knows where that is other than Déaþscúa himself and me.”

“You know how to use the faegate?” At a nod from the scrawny man, Elizabeth stood to the side. “Lead on then.”

Once everyone was inside the ring of fungi, Jearl knelt down and began to tap mushrooms like keys of a giant computer. As he worked he explained his actions to KT and Kai lazily.

“You see, faegates are, like, natural computers that are all kinda connected to each other. Just like the internet. You hit a mushroom that sits in the direction you want to travel, another as an indicator of country, area of said country and so on. Pinpointin’ a rough destination that should match you with the closest faegate to where you want to be. Then it, you know, emails us to our chosen gate. Simple.”

He was drawing worried looks from the two teens. He shrugged dismissively. “Meh. You don’t need to understand. Just be glad we have computers and internet now to compare it to. You try describing faegates to a medieval peasant without simply sayin’ ‘Magic’ and givin’ them a flashy jazz-hands.”

KT opened her mouth to comment when a wave of nausea rippled through her. Her vision blurred and bright colours swam across her eyes in shifting patterns. Her entire body tingled. She bent double, feeling on the verge of throwing up, when suddenly the colours and tingling was gone. When she straightened up she realised that they were no longer standing in the dense forest where they had been but instead were in the centre of a small cluster of plain hills. 

The air was warmer here. By normal standards she would have been frozen, but compared to the Scottish winter on her skin only seconds ago, it felt almost tropical. The mist that formed with her every breath suggested that the cold would get to her again soon enough.

“Where are we?” Kai asked. He was having serious trouble standing now but masked it as best as he could. Déaþscúa’s weight was not helping in the slightest. 

“Good ol’ Blighty,” Jearl answered happily. “The Peak District to be precise. It’s not far to the ol’ gaff.”

They took up a steady walk again in an uphill direction. Kai grumbled at this angrily. The terrain was rugged but beautiful. Mountains formed vast borders on the horizon, framing a picture of woods, green hills, rivers and small villages. Frost hung in the air, but if anything this simply added to the serene effect.

“Couldn’t you have used a faegate uphill of his house?” Kai grunted. “Even if it’s further away, a nice downhill stroll is always better.”

“Déaþscúa understandably didn’t want people to materialise on his doorstep. There’s only one active faegate in this area.” This answer only brought more angry muttering from Kai. 

“Well, if these faegates teleport you instantly from one to another and they’re everywhere, why have we been driving from place to place?”

“‘Cos driving is fun. That and the ‘orrible sickness. Oh, and the fact I wouldn’t trust a fairy to piss on me if I was on fire. They’re basically magical vermin with god complexes. Utter bastards they are.”

Jearl led them up the slope of a large hill until they crested it and looked down upon a small valley filled with evergreen trees. The sound of flowing water drifted to them and birdsong filled the air. None of that registered with the two teens though. Even Elizabeth looked slightly surprised by the building that sat nestled into the valley’s centre.

It was a giant building of light coloured stone with large windows, balconies and carved hedges in the shapes of animals clustered around it. It was so grand, completely different to how KT imagined Déaþscúa to live. She had expected a gloomy shack or cave, or maybe a regular house like Elizabeth, but this building was fit for a lord.

Walking through the wooded valley was almost enough to cleanse the weariness from their bones. The place felt peaceful, like peace had a physical presence that bathed the body inside and out. They followed a thin stream of fish filled water that ran through the valley then entered into the small clearing where the hedge animals stood like leafy guardians.

The closer they got, the more details KT was able to pick out. It was a three story building with a grand arched entrance carved to look like two trees holding the darkwood door in place. To either side of this were tower like sections that bulged out from the flat wall slightly and rose up beyond the main building. It was gothic in design yet somehow looked elegant and fit with its surroundings. KT had never seen anything like it.

They stopped in front of the door and marvelled at the intricate carving of an ancient battle that was cut into the wood. Each slight movement of the head seemed to make the warriors move, giving the illusion of life to the scene. Standing there, KT felt like an ant with the building towering over her like a personal cathedral.

Jearl took an iron key from a chain around his neck and slotted it into the ornate lock. It clicked and the door swung open without a sound. Lights flashed on, lighting up a wide corridor lined with paintings and statues. 

“Welcome to Éadnes,” Jearl proclaimed proudly. “Here Déaþscúa should be up and about in no time. There’s no place like home after all, eh.”

The others just stared in wonder. “How can he afford a place like this? He looks like a homeless man and wanders around the world. Why have a dirty great palace?” Kai asked. His eyes drifted between Déaþscúa and the house.

“People pay a lot for his skills,” Jearl answered noncommittally. “Been payin’ him for a good few years too. The place is off the grid. A little secret between friends that should never be repeated in the presence of a copper: He ain’t exactly payin’ taxes on it. Nobody alive knows of it’s existence, you see.”

KT and Elizabeth followed behind Jearl and Kai as they moved through the house with Déaþscúa slung between them. KT stared at everything like a child. The statues showed great heroes and terrible monsters, the paintings ranged from battles to scenic vistas and everywhere there were stained glass windows and shining lamps. Small tables or cabinets were placed against the walls every so often with strange or beautiful items on display within.

“Some of these objects are categorized as lost or destroyed by the Grand Moot,” Elizabeth said with wide eyes. “Is that a shard of Osiris? And there, that looks like Archlord Tibrill’s famed shadow-eater dagger. If the Moot knew that Déaþscúa had these items they’d be furious. More so than usual.”

Jearl shrugged. “He ain’t much for art but most of these pieces woulda been destroyed without him. In war zones and revolutions, art is often the first casualty.”

The two women lagged behind slightly when Elizabeth stopped to examine a palm sized disc of black and white. When they caught up they found Jearl and Kai lifting Déaþscúa onto a narrow bed in a white room filled with cupboards and cabinets. Jearl unlocked one cupboard with another key and took out a single bottle filled with a thick silver liquid. He stripped the bloody rags from Déaþscúa then unscrewed the lid and began to pour it onto his body. Steam rose from Déaþscúa’s skin as though the liquid burned him. Even unconscious, Déaþscúa thrashed and groaned.

Elizabeth nodded approvingly. “Silver Devil. Clever. It heals fast but leaves the victim dead after the next sunrise. Since Déaþscúa is basically immortal he only gains the benefits. It’s a good job too if Annis truly intends to open Heaven’s Gate. We can’t let that happen.”

Jearl nodded. “Yup. Now if you three don’t mind, I have some business to take care of. Look after him until I get back. There’s plenty of food so help yourselves.”

“Where are you going?” Elizabeth shouted at his back as he left the room. “The rules are you cannot leave Déaþscúa without his permission.” He didn’t respond. There was the dull thud of footsteps, the clicking of a door, and then he was gone. “Arrogant man,” she huffed.

Elizabeth began to search through the cupboards, taking out bottles and boxes that she examined with a knowing eye. She took bits and pieces then moved to a nearby workbench where she set to work grinding herbs and mixing liquids.

“Is that it?” Kai suddenly demanded into the quiet. “We just stand around here waiting while Annis does who knows what? I want to be out there with Niall tracking that bitch down.”

“Watch your language,” Elizabeth told him without looking up from her work. “You’re injured and would only slow down the search. We need to regroup and reassess the situation. I have no magic, you two are injured, Jearl has gone off alone and Déaþscúa is in a weakened state. Maybe if I could use magic to heal him it would be a different story. But I can’t so it isn’t. As soon as we’re all ready we’ll be back out there.” She held out a dish filled with a green paste. “Here. Apply this to your wounds then find where the bedrooms are in this place. KT, stay here a moment.”

Kai took the dish and left the room without a word, a sour expression on his grimy face. KT stepped closer to the older woman nervously. She remembered all too well punching the woman in the face the last time they had been in a quiet room together.

“I’m sorry about hitting you,” KT began but Elizabeth cut her off.

“Forget about that. You saw a threat and dealt with it. It is linked to why I want to talk with you though. You realised that I had been drugging you. You were able to fight against the magical effects of my tea. That’s no easy feat. I thought little of it at the time as some people are less susceptible to such things but when I saw you run straight through a fireball it became clear. I believe that you may be a Resistant.”

KT blinked. “Resistant?”

“Yes. Someone who is immune to the effects of magic. Magical energy touches you and dissipates instead of achieving its intended purpose,” the witch explained. “Your clothes took some of that blast but you should still have been knocked back and burned.”

“Wait, isn’t that the same as what happens with bacon? Déaþscúa told us that bacon is resistant to magic.”

“That is…true,” Elizabeth said slowly. “Bacon is known as a resistant material.”

“So I am bacon? Is that why everyone I meet keeps trying to eat me? Because I will taste like bloody bacon?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No. You have been dealing with some very evil people. People who draw power from the energies of life and death. Annis is so much stronger than I was because she used a far stronger source of power to draw from. Most of us use our own energies to create magic. Druids can draw energy from plants and animals, taking small amounts from nature to increase their power without damaging the providers. Necromancers use the energies of death. When creatures die a burst of energy is released that lingers around the bodies. The younger the life, the more energy is released. As you know, Annis usually consumes young children who’re brimming with life energy. She absorbs that energy directly unlike most necromancers who draw it from the air around them.”

KT turned away, her brain working overtime to process this information. She tried to push Annis from her mind. “Does this mean I’m like you? Magical?”

“Not necessarily,” the woman said with a soft, motherly smile. “Resistants can come from any species. It is more a genetic mutation than a magical ability. Only time will tell for you.”

“Was Ava magical?”

Elizabeth scowled at her. “I told you. I will say no more about her without Déaþscúa’s consent. The wounds in him left by her death still bleed deeply. Worry about yourself for now,” she told the younger woman softly. Her features turned serious. “On that note, don’t think that you are shielded completely from magic. Think of your potential ability like a suit of armour; it will protect you but enough force will break it and it will have weaknesses.” The soft smile returned. “Now, find your brother and get some rest. I’ll keep watch on Déaþscúa.”

With a final lingering look toward Déaþscúa, KT left Elizabeth to her work. Finding Kai in the massive house was easy enough. He stamped around and muttered harshly to himself loud enough to be heard from several rooms away. He had wandered upstairs and was moving from room to room in search of a bedroom that suited him. When KT found him he was prodding a bed to test its softness and studying the room carefully. Finally he shrugged and threw himself onto the bed. 

“Here,” he said, throwing the half empty bowl of paste to her. 

She caught it easily and after a pensive sniff applied it to the larger of her cuts. It burned for a second before leaving the areas numb.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” she said softly. “Nothing seems to be getting any clearer, does it?”

Kai remained quiet. He was running his fingers along a gash in his arm that the lycan had caused. “We do what we have to do,” he answered after a while. He fell back into silence until he abruptly asked, “Do you think we’ll see Dad again?”

“We have to,” was all she could think to say. 

“She burned the lodge, crucified Mum, turned some of the guests into zombies and massacred women and children. What chance do we have?”

KT clenched her fists and nearly snarled at him. “Don’t you dare start talking like that! We’ll see both Dad and Aunt Susan again and never say otherwise.”

Kai chuckled to himself, drawing a sharp note of anger from his sister. He held up his hands placatingly. “Chill. I’m not seriously wallowing in self pity or anything. Think of it as pre-emptive self-defeatism.”

“What?”

“Bad things are going to happen. We’re going to be worn down and told that we aren’t good enough. We might start believing it when we’re in that worn down state. I’m simply getting it out of my system now while I can still think straight. It’s therapeutic.”

KT smiled. “You always come up with the weirdest sayings and ideas. Are you really okay with everything?”

“Elizabeth was right. We’re hurt and our key players are out of action. Niall and the MacFeelans won’t rush out before their dead are buried and their wounds are healed. We have no option but to wait. We can’t risk running off alone again. I don’t like it but that’s the way it is.”

“I meant are you okay personally. Forget everything else for now. Are you coping? You usually bottle everything up until you explode.”

Kai shrugged. “I don’t know how to do anything else. Mum is hurt, Dad is locked away in God knows what state, the one guy who can help us is a pulpy mess who’s crying for his family, and we’re so far out of our league that we’re insects in a nuclear war. We can’t run, we can’t fight and we can’t sit back and wait. How am I supposed to feel? When I felt trapped by Mum I dyed my hair and got tattoos. When I hated college I dropped out. When I started playing against better teams at rugby I swapped to less competitive hobbies. There isn’t an easy move to make here and now. I hate not knowing what to do. What about you? You were always the calm one.”

“I’m not sure,” KT answered. She searched herself and found fear and anger, but more than anything else, she just felt numb. 

“Maybe I’m just shell-shocked. I feel…terrified. I want things to go back to the way they were before but even if I was given the choice I think I’d still keep fighting. I hate it but it feels somehow right. I want to save Dad and the others but I also want to watch Annis die. I want to save those who can’t defend themselves like those women back in Glasgow.”

Kai nodded. “I think you’re right. The danger. The rush. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’ll all be clearer in the morning. I doubt it but who knows? I’ll keep you safe though. That’s a promise.”

“I know. The same goes for you too.”

KT left and took the room next to Kai’s before collapsed straight onto the bed. The room was a good size and held an expensive looking double bed and several shelves, wardrobes and draws. The design was outdated like what would be in old manor houses and palaces but was filled with modern conveniences like lights, a kettle, a radiator and a handful of spare plug sockets. 

She fell asleep easily and whether it was exhaustion or the comfort of the bed, likely both, she dreamed pleasant dreams at first. Blood gradually filled them though, shattering the peace with faces of the dead. Those that she had killed haunted her, as did the butchered corpses of the MacFeelans. When she finally woke up she was left wondering if she would ever have pleasant dreams again after what she had seen.

It was upon waking that she realised that her body and clothes were sweaty and covered in muck and dried blood. The room had its own en suite bathroom which she gratefully used, washing herself down in the small shower within.

There was a knock at the door followed by Elizabeth’s voice. “I guessed you would want a shower. I scoured the house and couldn’t find anything close to your size but I have something that should make do. I’ll take your other clothes and get them washed and ready for you.”

Elizabeth’s find consisted of a white t-shirt that had the word ‘Relax’ printed across the front and long sport socks. There was nothing else. She slipped them on and was relieved when the t-shirt went down to her knees where it met the socks. Taking a spare belt from a draw she fastened it around her stomach to give the top some form.

She ventured downstairs and followed her nose into a large kitchen. Kai was already in there. He too wore scavenged clothes that were far too big for him. He had jeans and a plain black t-shirt that hung from him in every possible way. KT was glad in hindsight that she hadn’t been given trousers. She was a good bit slimmer than her brother.

Bacon sizzled in a frying pan but to KT’s surprise it was not Elizabeth who stood over it. Déaþscúa offered her a smile. She was taken aback by the fact he was already on his feet again but also with how faded he looked. His skin was pale and his scarred face looked tired and gaunt. His right eye was covered by a simple eyepatch and his left arm was in a sling. He leant against a good quality walking stick and it seemed to be the main thing keeping him up.

“Sorry about yesterday,” he told her as casually as a man might comment on the weather. “I made you breakfast to make up for it. ‘Arvina omnia vulnera sanat’ is my motto after all.

Previous – Chapter 13.

Next – Chapter 15.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 14. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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